Friday, September 30, 2005

Happiness, American and Saudi

Yesterday Al-Jazeera reported that Saudi Arabian women (specifically, several university students who met with US diplomat Karen Hughes on her ongoing Middle East PR junket) resent being depicted in American media as downtrodden subjugates and want the world to know that they are "happy." During the course of the Q&A session, one student insisted that "I don't want to drive, because I have my own driver," while another asserted that "[there] is not an absolute wall" between men and women in Saudi society. These young women's concerns about the media are understandable but misdirected: the lens through which Americans perceive Saudi norms is heavily colored by a deep incommensurability between the two nations' respective cultures. At the crux of this incommensurability is the question of whether happiness can be had without freedom.

Most Americans, I think, would identify freedom as a necessary condition for happiness. The belief that people have a "natural" right to do as they please as long as their actions don't harm others is so deeply ingrained in our consciousness that we tend to think of it as universal. I'm no exception--I simply don't see how social restrictions on attire, occupation, and association could possibly enhance happiness. While some might be satisfied with such a limited existence, there's a part of me that believes, rightly or wrongly, that there must be some contingent of women in Saudi Arabia who think differently, wanting to dress, work, and socialize however they please. If someone asked me whether I thought the women quoted in the article represent the majority female opinion in their country, my first instinct would be to answer no.

The attitudes expressed in the article make me wonder how blacks living under the heel of Jim Crow in the 1930s and 40s would have reacted in an encounter with some prominent European opponent of segregation. Would they have claimed that everything was fine against all logic, or would they have agreed with the anti-segregationist--in full mediated view of their oppressors? The obvious answer is that most would not have risked violent reprisals just to show solidarity with a privileged outsider who probably wouldn't be able to offer them much real help anyway. And perhaps that's the case with these women. Maybe publicly repudiating the Saudi social order carries with it the risk of expulsion, social ostracism or worse. A few women made token overtures to eventual cultural change, but they took care to reject all outside assistance and to stay away from concrete details. It looks to me as if there's a good chance they could be faking the "right" opinions for pragmatic reasons, but that belief may just reflect my Western cultural orientation.